As I’ve mentioned before, I have a lifelong goal of someday reading James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
During my holiday break, I decided to take a significant jump towards that goal by reading Ulysses. For those of you that don’t know, this is Joyce’s magnum opus, generally considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
I’ve read a lot of books, some of which were quite challenging. Once before, I’d tried reading Ulysses, but I wasn’t very focused. I was reading it during my lunch hour and grabbing snatches of it here and there. At least for me, this was not a successful approach. At one point, I set it down and never picked it up again.
I knew that this is a very complex book with a lot of allusions, historical references, and inside Irish jokes. A friend of mine graciously loaned me an annotated reference book. Armed with this, I commenced to read.
Since I had over a week off, my original plan was to complete Ulysses during my break. I quickly realized that this was not tenable. My next plan was to read the first 500 pages (my version is about 730 pages). That plan fell apart. My next plan was to read the first half of it. By the end of my break, I’d barely read 300 pages.
It is indeed a tremendously challenging book to read. If you’re at all familiar with it, you’ll know that it loosely (at times, very loosely) matches up to Homer’s Odyssey. Instead of tracking a hero’s epic ten year journey to get back to his wife and son, Ulysses is about one day (specifically June 16th, 1904) in the life of a Dublin resident, Leopold Bloom. If you squint just right, you can see such Odyssey characters as Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, Polyphemus, Tiresias, etc.
The Odyssey is just one, albeit overarching, allusion in this work. Each section of Ulysses refers to a body part. A section consisting of an intellectual discussion is alluding to the brain. A section consisting of a meal is alluding to the stomach. A section on childbirth is alluding to the womb. And so on.
Ulysses is absolutely steeped in 1904 Dublin life. He refers to specific homes and offices that reside on specific streets. He refers to certain, hyperlocal events that happened on that very day or in the very recent past.
Clearly, he’s writing the great Irish novel. The novel is saturated with Irish geography, Irish history, Irish politics, and Irish mythology. Ireland has what could best be charitably described as a checkered history with the English, and here Joyce is setting out to write a novel that leaves an Irish mark in world literature. Given that, I found it interesting that Joyce spent nearly all of his adult life in continental Europe and that, due to obscenity issues, Ireland was actually one of the last nations to make Ulysses available within its borders.
In some ways, Ulysses reminded me of, and probably informed, Pynchon’s writing of Gravity’s Rainbow, which similarly saturates the reader in London minutiae during the timing of the Blitz, including such things as radio shows that were playing at certain dates and times.
This level of detail is absolutely stunning and, on the one hand, puts you neck deep into the time and place. However, in both cases, I would have been absolutely lost without the annotated notes.
This brings up an interesting subject when a work of fiction lives in such a fully described reality (maximalism). I recall to mind a prolific critic that was active during Shakespeare’s time. I don’t remember his name. He was apparently a popular and respected critic. However, his language and topics were so specifically Elizabethan in nature that his essays are essentially incomprehensible now. They were so specific to the time that, 400 years later, they might as well have been written by aliens.
I wonder if novels like Ulysses will continue to stand the test of time. If one hundred years after it was written, it is virtually incomprehensible without an aid (and it is), what will it be like to read 200 years from now? Will there be an entire class of what are currently considered today classic novels that will gradually fade into obscurity over time?
Anyway, I am now (barely) halfway through the novel. Now that I’m back to work, I’m not exactly sure when I’ll finish. It could very well take me another month. It has certainly been a challenging read. I wouldn’t exactly say that it has been fun.
So, why am I doing it? Well, why do people climb Everest?